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Kinship Narratives and New Reproductive Technologies

Through the extensive ethnographic inquiry and “thick description” of the Module 2 readings, we can see the various ways narratives of kinship effect and shape reproductive decision-making across the globe. Although the calculus behind kinship is widely debated, kinship relationships are foundational to both marriage and reproduction, as well as society as a whole. From an evolutionary psychology perspective, “kinship is defined in terms of genetic relatedness…” where “you’re either someone’s mother or you aren’t” (McKinnon 107). As such, evolutionary psychologists assert “a direct link between kinship categories and biological relatedness…” (McKinnon 109). In contrast to this perspective, however, ‘constructionists’ like McKinnon view genetics as but one mode through which kinship relations are formed. Under this conception of kinship, “the fact of ‘treating one another well’ says it all: the relationship is created and maintained by acts of nurturance and solicitude…” (McKinnon 111). Through patterns of altruism, nurturance, and an allocation of resources, then, kinship transcends the bounds of any one genetic relationship. 

Although McKinnon provides the multifaceted use of kinship vocabulary as evidence that “the mind is a flexible and creative tool capable of creating diverse cultural forms” – where a female child may be addressed as ‘mother’ or a surrogate father as ‘dad’ – Shapiro asserts that such extensions “are grounded in native appreciations of procreation…” (Shapiro 140). While such kinship vocabulary necessarily extends beyond biology, Shapiro argues that kinship is, nevertheless, dependent upon, and therefore derived from, genetic calculi.

Kinship narratives such as these play a particularly prominent role in shaping cultural attitudes towards adoption, IVF, birth-control, and other reproductive technologies. Throughout the Muslim world, “attitudes toward family formation are closely tied to religious teachings that stress the importance of ‘purity of lineage,’” posing a quandary for couples faced with infertility. For both Shi’ites and Sunnis, “the very concept of social parenthood is culturally contingent and is deeply embedded in ‘local moral worlds,’…[which] govern ideas about the parenting of ‘nonbiological children, including those conceived through biotechnological means” (Inhorn 96). As such, many of the men discussed “could not accept the idea of social fatherhood – arguing that an adopted or donor child ‘won’t be my son’…” (Inhorn 98). Especially among Sunni men, genetic relationship is closely tied to kinship. 

Likewise, kinship also plays a prominent role in shaping the reproductive practices of Orthodox Jews, shaping the ways in which they navigate the tension between the traditionally divine realm of procreation and “the ability to take charge of and fully mange reproduction” (Taragin-Zeller 372). Through the construction of a middle-ground or grey-area of decision-making, many of Taragin-Zeller’s interviewees coped with the anxieties of reproduction, as well as the tension it posed against their faith, by constructing “a decision-making apparatus that takes into consideration the desires of the self, communal mores, and the input of external players,” the most important of which being God (Taragin-Zeller 379). 

8 replies on “Kinship Narratives and New Reproductive Technologies”

I think you did a really good job summarizing all of Module 2’s readings. It’s interesting how each of the readings we had are about the same things (kinship, mainly) however are yet all so different from each other. This emphasizes the assertion that kinship cannot be defined and is at best, subjective. Every one of these readings has been about kinship and its definition, but despite this, they are all very different (in terms of both the definition they provide as well as the perspective they are talking about it in/view they are providing for the reader).

I appreciate how well you summarized each of the articles as it allowed me to establish new connections between certain articles that I had not yet considered. I would argue that the first two articles are linked not only in their discussion of whether or not kinship is based in genetics or cultural ties, but also in their attempt to define/determine the basis of kinship. McKinnon, while presenting the idea that kinship is infinitely variable among different cultures/religions, firmly reasons that kinship is grounded in culture rather than biology and nature. Shapiro’s goal was to show that kinship is usually if not always defined by local notions of genetic connection. On the other hand, Inhorn and
Taragin-Zeller argue that kinship falls within a grey area, where members of strict religious communities must work to balance religious teachings with one’s own reproductive practices. In these communities, kinship lacks definition and boundaries, displaying the “heterogeneity of religiously based moral systems” concerning family planning within the Muslim and Hasidic religions (Inhorn).

Great job at summarizing the articles and also seeing how they can be put into conversation with each other. I like how you make it clear that the articles are not simply presenting opposing views that negate the other (such as Shapiro vs. McKinnon), but how they present diverse views of a multifaceted issue. For the other two articles, it is clear the the answer is not simply “Muslims believe this and Jews believe this,” because of all the nuance that goes into discussions/ negotiations around the issues of assisted reproduction, family planning, and kinship.

Sophie,
I appreciate your discussion of the readings! Something that stood out to me in the Inhorn article was the flexibility of traditionally religious men to redefine what it means to be a parent in the interest of their own personal relationships. A resounding theme through these articles is that such social constructions are flexible, despite historical/religious influence. This is something we should keep in the mind for the rest of the course in which we look at ethically/morally ambiguous biological matters.

As mentioned in the previous two comments, I’m really impressed by how succinctly yet eloquently you were able to draw connections between all of the readings from this module! In regards to the debate between McKinnon and Shapiro, I was personally a bit surprised by how confident and conclusive both parties seemed to be in their firm belief that the other stance was incorrect. Both seemed to argue that only one model was worth being used when studying kinship patterns: evolutionary psychologists, as backed by Shapiro, focused on the genetic calculus that determined subsequent behavior and patterns of kinship, while McKinnon argued that culture was the basis through which familial ties are determined. However, I’m personally led to believe that the question at hand cannot be answered with one or the other; rather, it is multiplicative relationship between the two theories of nature vs. nurture in which both systems interact with one another to varying extents depending upon culture and circumstance. This reminds me of the concept of gene-environment interaction (GEI), a newly emerging theory that describes how nature and nurture interact with one another as components that both contribute to epigenetic effects on behavior–a theory that I believe would be a more holistic model when studying human kinship. This science-based theory of GEI allows for a more nuanced understanding of the role that religious and cultural norms play in human perceptions and behaviors towards the ethics of reproductive technology. It’s particularly interesting observing the diversity of belief and action among people of similar backgrounds, highlighting the complexity of individual choice and interpretation of such norms.

I appreciate the way you summarized this week’s reading – your summary has a great logical flow that not only summarizes the content but also associates the different readings together in terms of similar and contrasting ideas on kinship. It’s fascinating to see that the seemingly simple concept, kinship, can be defined drastically differently in the context of different cultures and religions. We can get a rough idea of how much other concepts in different cultures would differ through the lens of the diverse definition of kinship across cultures — the topic of kinship could open up another discussion about the diversity in the culture systems.

No matter how much dispute there is between different concepts of kinship and how different cultural/religious systems are more strict and exclusive on defining kinships, the disagreement, on the other hand, shows the importance of kinship to define the most basic unit in human society. No matter how different cultures/society defines kinship, the emphasis on a clear definition of kinship shows how commonly humans put kinships on an important role, showing the commonality of humans emphasizing kinships and family.

In addition to your summary about Shapiro’s and McKinnon’s different understanding of the definition of kinships, I also think their opposing arguments are complementary to each other: their points made up a more conclusive image of the definition of kinship. The genetic ties will always matter in kinship. At the same time, how people across cultures define kinship differently matters as well because there must be a reason behind it that’s unique to each culture. Therefore, I think that the combination of both McKinnon’s and Shapiro’s ideas on kinship, which is both genetic ties and culturally varied kinship definition, makes up a more conclusive definition of kinship.

Sophie,
You did a great job summarizing this modules reading and I was very impressed by your ability to seamlessly place quotes from the various authors in your writing, not only to illustrate their perspectives, but also to demonstrate connections between their viewpoints. Your commentary about the articles displaying a diverse set of opinions that do not necessarily contradict each other pointed to what I understood as the exact point of the module. It is so interesting that modern technologies have challenged people to think critically and morph their beliefs to either fit or prohibit new “common” practices in the world more broadly. What I found most interesting is that the articles all came from similar fields, but were different in their representations of work. For example, Inhorn’s article was very research based and presented data to base her arguments off of. However, authors like Shapiro and Mckinnon, pointed more to behavioral evidence in stating how they have witnessed or known people to interact. I wonder which mode of communication was more effective for people in terms of persuasion.

Sophie, good job summarizing these readings. I think it is so interesting how people morph their definition of what it means to be family with the onset of new technology like IVF. I thought Inhorn’s reading was particularly interesting with how men correlated genetic relatedness to kinship, yet simultaneously there were shi’ite couple’s who were finding loopholes like temporary marriages to have what they believe is proper kin. While this technique may seem kind of peculiar, all that matters is that it caters to their understanding of kinship.

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